Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
By Mary Park
Think of John Cheever's fiction, and a whole world springs to mind--a
world of leafy suburbs, summer houses, commuter trains, boarding schools,
and inevitably, his own chosen territory, the cocktail hour among WASPs.
But it's a mistake to approach Cheever as if he were merely some sort of
anthropologist documenting the customs of an obscure and vanishing tribe.
Nostalgia and class issues aside, his true subject is the darkness hidden
beneath the surface of postwar American life. A case in point is his
famous story "The Swimmer," in which an ebullient Neddy Merrill
decides to swim home across the backyard pools of his neighbors. In the
course of his journey, however, summer gives way to autumn, his neighbors
turn against him, there are troubling intimations of disgrace and
financial ruin, and he arrives to find his house both locked and empty.
Though these stories deal with bright, prosperous, ostensibly happy
people, a cold wind blows through them. Age, illness, financial
embarrassment, sex, alcohol, death--all of these threaten his suburban
Eden. (Is it himself Cheever is mocking in his ironic "The Worm in
the Apple"? "Everyone in the community with wandering hands had
given them both a try but they had been put off. What was the source of
this constancy? Were they frightened? Were they prudish? Were they
monogamous? What was at the bottom of this appearance of happiness?")
Inanimate objects carry the residue of their past owners' unhappiness and
cruelty ("Seaside Houses," "The Lowboy"); expatriates
long for but cannot quite find their way home ("The Woman Without A
Country," "Boy in Rome"); children vanish or turn out badly
(too many stories to count).
All of this is conveyed in prose both graceful and tender. No one is
better than Cheever at describing a character's appearance: "He was a
cheerful, heavy man with a round face that looked exactly like a pudding.
Everyone was glad to see him, as one is glad to see, at the end of a meal,
the appearance of a bland, fragrant, and nourishing dish made of fresh
eggs, nutmeg, and country cream." Given his uncanny eye (and ear) for
realistic description, it's easy to forget how experimental Cheever
could be. His later stories pioneered authorial intrusions in the best
postmodern style, and from the beginning, he wrote what would much later
be called magical realism. (Think of the sinister broadcasts in "The
Enormous Radio," or the phantom love interest in "The
Chimera.") A literary event at its publication and winner of the
Pulitzer Prize in 1979, The Stories of John Cheever remains a
stunning and enormously influential book.